One of the great pleasures of Two Years Before the Mast, as I’ve noted, is its picture of California before there was anything there. As a historical document it’s really a treasure. I’ve never been to California, but I know there is more to San Francisco now than the presidio, and that hide-droghing has fallen by the wayside. And Dana was there in 1835-36—that is to say, not a terribly long time before the Mexican-American War, the gold rush, or Californian statehood.
Dana returned to California in 1859 and wrote a new chapter for his book, “Twenty-Four Years After,” which describes San Francisco as a city with a hundred thousand residents (with Protestant churches of every denomination! though the Pueblo de los Angeles is still a sleepier town of twenty thousand). Already the trade in hides up and down the coast is over—gold having changed just about everything—and the interior is beginning to be cultivated. As “a respectable-looking citizen on the wharf” tells him, “‘those old times of the Pilgrim and Alert and California, that we read about, are gone by.’” If only the citizen knew that he read about those ships in the book of his very interlocutor.
For Dana is famous in California. Nearly everyone has read his book, and there are still many people there whom he met his first time out. Acquaintances struck up and met again twenty-four years later, in the mid-early nineteenth century, on what was really a frontier, seem almost incredible. The poignancy of the whole thing is really too much, for me and Dana both.
The past was real. The present, all about me, was unreal, unnatural, repellent. I saw the big ships lying in the stream, the Alert, the California, the Rosa, with her Italians; then the handsome Ayacucho, my favorite;
Continue reading A return to California, and a lesson in romance
Two Years Before the Mast is one of the books I’ve been dipping in and out of, since I find these sea journals really lend themselves to that. Richard Henry Dana was a student at Harvard who took time off school to go on a merchant voyage around Cape Horn in 1834. He returned two years later after traveling to California and trading hides up and down the coast.
This is among the best of the sea journals I have read, partly because Dana describes the most about life on the ship. He is fully aware of how little his friends and family back in Cambridge know, and his memoir recounts in detail a great part of the work that must be done each day on a ship, and what life is like in the forecastle.
But the parts on and near shore might be even better. When Dana is on the ship, he’s really concerned with the people on it anyway: the way the men treat each other, the relationship between the men and the officers, what the men do and think and feel all day. When they arrive on the coast he has much more material for consideration and these parts are a really interesting portrait of Mexican California and its inhabitants.
Dana describes enough about the place that you can completely picture it in your mind. He explains about the civil and religious administration, about the presidios and the missions and the towns, and on his shore leave he rents horses to ride around the countryside rather than getting drunk in a fandango like most of the others.
That is not to say that he is exactly kind to the Californians. He is charmed by them, but an unsurprising but strong current of anti-Catholicism leaves him
Continue reading Richard Henry Dana in California
All of the personal narratives I’ve been reading of time at sea, including those by Richard Henry Dana, William Bligh, the crew of the Essex, Amasa Delano, spend considerable time discussing the flora and fauna they encounter on their travels. Not a huge surprise, of course—they were all traveling to quite exotic places, with animals very different from what they were used to, and sometimes doing so so early that they were among the first to see them.
The sailors that reach the Galapagos talk about the lizards. Many, many of them also talk about turtles, tortoises, and terrapins (very popular food). Penguins are noteworthy. Birds in general are often mentioned, especially since even the ordinary ones signal the long-awaited nearing of land. But the albatross is probably the most striking creature the sailors discuss.
Striking for me (and presumably most other readers) because of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Striking for the sailors because the albatross is, apparently, a truly amazing bird. Strange for someone familiar with the poem, in more than one of these voyages do the men leave bait for albatrosses over the stern, hoping to catch one. They don’t actually describe eating them, but one can only assume that they do. In Two Years Before the Mast:
I had been interested in the bird from descriptions which I had read of it, and was not at all disappointed. We caught one or two with a baited hook which we floated astern upon a shingle. Their long, flapping wings, long legs, and large, staring eyes, give them a very peculiar appearance. They look well on the wing, but one of the finest sights that I have ever seen, was an albatross asleep upon the water, during a calm, off Cape Horn, when a heavy
Continue reading As if it had been a Christian soul, we hailed it in God’s name
Margaret Cohen borrows a line from White Jacket to describe the ship in “The Chronotopes of the Sea”: “a ship is a bit of terra firm cut off from the main; it is a state in itself; and the captain is its king.” A state in itself, a tiny piece of land floating around the blue and white and brown water. And because it’s tiny, and cut off, no one can come and no one can leave.
This is a central force behind the action of the inside novel Voyage Along the Horizon. Victor Arledge, Hugh Everett Bayham, Léonide Meffre, the Handls, Captain Kerrigan, all are stuck together for the duration of the Antarctic voyage. They are also all stuck with the crew and the scientists. The artists, it should be mentioned, are there to make a floating colony and create austral-inspired art. The scientists are there to perform their own art in the Antarctic. But the artists seem like a bunch of dilettantes, deciding to make port calls all over the Mediterranean before setting out in earnest. This means before the trip even makes Gibraltar, everyone is ready to strangle everyone else.
This itself is almost an inversion of the normal ship. As Richard Henry Dana put it in Two Years Before the Mast:
…at sea—to use a homely but expressive phrase—you miss a man so much. A dozen men are shut up together in a little bark, upon the wide, wide sea, and for months see no forms and hear no voices but their own, and one is taken suddenly from among them, and they miss him at every turn. It is like losing a limb. There are no new faces or new scenes to fill up the gap.
But on the Tallahassee, if only losing a limb
Continue reading Water was far from the only thing that made things shift and sway and rock wildly aboard the Tallahassee